Long distance operator: putting the call through for the Visions of Johanna

By Tony Attwood

What song did Bob Dylan write just before Visions of Johanna?

It is an interesting question, because so many people (including me) see Johanna as such a masterpiece, it would be interesting to know quite what did come along just before – not least so that we could take a listen and maybe pick out one or two pointers as to how Bob Dylan’s music and poetry were emerging at the time.

Here’s the list of the compositions about this time at the end of Dylan’s period of composing in late summer and autumn 1965.

  1. Ballad of a thin man
  2. Jet Pilot
  3. Medicine Sunday
  4. I wanna be your lover
  5. Long Distance Operator
  6. Visions of Johanna

“Ballad of a thin man” ended a series of vitriolic songs that began with Crawl out your window, and 4th street.  It was followed by three of the more throw away songs (even if  the throwing out was on occasion only temporary) and then this little piece, which really doesn’t seem to add much to the sum of human knowledge.

It is a 12 bar blues with a bit of a variant at one point which was apparently played once by Dylan in a show in 1965 – and later rescued by the Band.  It was included on the original Basement Tapes record.

Here’s the Band…

 

The lyrics don’t add too much in my opinion, but maybe you can get more out of them than me.

Long-distance operator
Place this call, it’s not for fun
Long-distance operator
Please, place this call, you know it’s not for fun
I gotta get a message to my baby
You know, she’s not just anyone

There are thousands in the phone booth
Thousands at the gate
There are thousands in the phone booth
Thousands at the gate
Ev’rybody wants to make a long-distance call
But you know they’re just gonna have to wait

If a call comes from Louisiana
Please, let it ride
If a call comes from Louisiana
Please, let it ride
This phone booth’s on fire
It’s getting hot inside

Ev’rybody wants to be my friend
But nobody wants to get higher
Ev’rybody wants to be my friend
But nobody wants to get higher
Long-distance operator
I believe I’m stranglin’ on this telephone wire

Heylin has also come up with an extra verse that apparently was later cut…

Well she don’t need no shotgun, 
Blades are not her style
Well she don’t need no shotgun, 
Blades are not her style
She can poison you with her eyes
She can kill you with her smile

I am not sure that adds too much,but I include it for the sake of completeness.

But I long ago stopped trying to understand what could lead Dylan not just to write some of these throw-away songs (for so it appears to me) but to bother to keep them.  By which I mean, most songwriters that I have come across have hundreds of rejects that they compose and set aside, never allowing them to be heard.  And none of the people I know has ever written something as extraordinary for an opening line as what was to come next.

How does

She can poison you with her eyes
She can kill you with her smile

connect with

Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re trying to be so quiet?

I guess if I knew I could write a paper on it and deliver it in every university studying the work of Dylan and then retire on the proceeds.  But I can’t, except for one thing.  He is writing about an enigmatic woman in that “lost” verse.  And if you want an enigmatic woman, Johanna surely is your first port of call.

So yes, we still have the recording of Long Distance Operator, but these Visions of Johanna are now all that remain.

What else is on the site

1: Over 480 reviews of Dylan songs.  There is an index to these in alphabetical order on the home page, and an index to the songs in the order they were written in the Chronology Pages.

2: The Chronology.  We’ve taken the songs we can find recordings of and put them in the order they were written (as far as possible) not in the order they appeared on albums.  The chronology is more or less complete and is now linked to all the reviews on the site.  We have also produced overviews of Dylan’s work year by year.     The index to the chronologies is here.

3: Bob Dylan’s themes.  We publish a wide range of articles about Bob Dylan and his compositions.  There is an index here.

4:   The Discussion Group    We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook.  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

5:  Bob Dylan’s creativity.   We’re fascinated in taking the study of Dylan’s creative approach further.  The index is in Dylan’s Creativity.

6: You might also like: A classification of Bob Dylan’s songs and partial Index to Dylan’s Best Opening Lines and our articles on various writers’ lists of Dylan’s ten greatest songs.

And please do note   The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, is starting to link back to our reviews

 

 

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3 Responses to Long distance operator: putting the call through for the Visions of Johanna

  1. Babette says:

    Johanna is a male name in hebrew. It means God is gracious or Gods gift.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joanna

    Bob Dylan got his first child in january 1966. The same year the song was written.

  2. Morten Jonsson says:

    Since you quote the Band’s version of the song, and call the shotgun verse an extra, lost verse, I’m guessing you might not have heard Dylan’s version. A recording, supposedly from Berkeley on December 4, 1965, but actually, it seems, from San Francisco a week later, has been circulating for quite a while now. And last year another one surfaced, from San Jose the next night (taped by Allen Ginsberg!). You should check those out; they’re definitely worth a listen.

  3. Steven Wann says:

    Gehenna, according to Wikipedia, is a destination of the wicked, almost “hell” in Hebrew. IMO, Dylan is singing about a situation of hell, a depression that the narrator is in. Note that the narrator doesn’t do anything in the song: everyone relates to him, or approaches him. He has no contro:l “The country station plays soft, but there’s nothing really to turn off”. The women challenge him to defy a handful of rain.
    “Visions” is not a love song. It’s Dylan’s “Wasteland”.

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